As part of an ongoing effort to improve myself and make myself fit for polite society, I have been perusing “Treatise on the Gods,” by the late H.L. Mencken, a book that he published in 1930, then revised in 1946, and I can tell you it’s been an eye-opener.
Mencken was a skeptic in religious matters as he was in most matters, and you have to allow for that, but even so it’s startling to see how wrong he was about the theological development of his countrymen.
As a journalist he had covered the celebrated Scopes trial in 1925, in which a high school biology teacher in Tennessee was accused of breaking the law by teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution, and he thus had abundant experience with backwoods Christianity. But it did not swamp him or lead him to believe it was representative of the Republic as a whole.
On the contrary, just a few years later he wrote in his treatise: “Today no really civilized man or woman believes in the cosmogony of Genesis, nor in the reality of Hell, nor in any of the other ancient imbecilities that still entertain the mob. What survives under the name of Christianity, above the stratum of the mob, is no more than a sort of Humanism, with hardly more supernaturalism in it than you will find in mathematics or political economy.”
What do you suppose poor Mencken would think if he could return to his homeland today? No civilized person believes in the reality of hell? Christianity is no more than a sort of humanism?
If his ghost had to attend a National Day of Prayer event, or listen to commentary on Fox News, or contemplate the results of Gallup polls, it would probably holler, “Oh, send me back to Hades and let me never deceive myself about human progress again.”
The most recent Gallup poll on the subject shows 40 percent of Americans subscribing to the statement, “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so,” which is exactly the position of semiliterate Tennessee preachers a century ago as they cavorted around bonfires at camp meetings, howling imprecations at the Devil.
Granted, support for that statement has declined five percentage points over the past decade, and you can call that progress if you like, but from what base? I wonder if as many as 40 percent of Americans subscribed to it when Mencken was assuring us that no really civilized person believed such nonsense.
We don’t know, because Gallup only started asking the question in 1982, and since then responses have varied only a little, but I bet not.
And does modern-day Christianity have no more supernaturalism in it than mathematics?
Hardly. The moderate position, if you want to call it that, is, OK, evolution did occur, but “God guided this process,” which is taken by 38 percent of the people questioned by Gallup, leaving precious few (16 percent) to qualify as truly civilized by Mencken’s lights.
And as for the reality of Hell, just read the statement of faith of an evangelical church of your choosing.
Why, we just had a national movement to steel our souls for the Second Coming, in case you missed it, a movement led by a California-based radio network that takes in $18 million a year in contributions promoting a theology that would have set very comfortably in any earlier wave of religious fervor, pre-Scopes.
There have been several such waves, which Christians are pleased to call Great Awakenings.
The dates for them are somewhat arbitrary, but the first is usually considered to have occurred in the 1730s and 1740s and is associated with the deterministic theologian Jonathan Edwards, who is still regarded as a glittering figure by fervent Christians today.
The second came in the early 1800s and was especially big in western New York, which was dubbed the Burnt-Over District, apparently because of the spiritual scorching that occurred there. It’s what produced the Mormons and the Seventh Day Adventists, as well as the now-forgotten Millerites.
The third was around the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, which produced Christian Science and brought the Salvation Army to our shores.
Some scholars say a fourth wave began in the late 1960s with the Jesus Freaks, as they were known, and I would say that one continues today with the mainstreaming of what in Mencken’s day was just an embarrassing undercurrent in Christianity, marked by a devotion to the cosmogony of Genesis and an expectation of the coming Rapture, when all good Christians would be whooshed up to heaven and the rest of us would be left to sizzle in eternal hellfire.
It became respectable under the patronage of President George W. Bush and continues to be a force in our national politics, as we know too well.
I guess I’m glad Mencken isn’t here to see it. I like him and would not wish to see an analysis of his so thoroughly demolished in his presence.